Exhibit A: Sweeney Todd. Exhibit B: Gypsy. And now Exhibit C: the National Theatre’s new production of Follies. Which, for my money, is the pick of the bunch.
Follies tells the story of a reunion of ex-showgirls, impresarios and various hangers on as the theatre in which they all spent their youths is demolished. It focuses in on two tragicomically mismatched couples - Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben - whose ‘showgirl and admirer’ relationships are showing the strains of time, if indeed you could ever truly call them unstrained.
However, the plot is largely and brilliantly irrelevant to what Follies is about. It’s much more about emotions: disillusionment, what might have been and the danger of becoming obsessed with that idea at the expense of what actually is. The way that this is portrayed in the show is through, essentially, double casting all but a couple of the roles: every character appears in both their present and ‘young’ form on the stage at the same time, with the ‘young’ version mainly acting as a shadow. As a way of explaining what’s going on without bucketloads of exposition, it thoroughly works. It’s clever, effective and generally feels very Sondheim.
Speaking of whom, it goes without saying that Stephen Sondheim is a genius (if you don’t agree I insist you leave immediately) and Follies is simply one of his finest shows. Not just because its form is so intriguing, it’s also musically one of his strongest and most varied. It is filled with big (and typically Sondheimy) character numbers as you would perhaps expect but there are also several lovingly mocking pastiches of numbers from the vaudeville era, a bit of music hall and even some opera thrown in for good measure. And several songs that cross these categories, because if you’re as good as Stephen Sondheim then why not? All of it is glorious; rich, complex and melodic with punchy, funny and/or gutwrenchingly sad lyrics. Losing My Mind is justifiably the most well known piece from Follies and remains one of the most beautiful, thoughtful and saddest songs ever written.
James Goldman's book is the perfect wrapping to Sondheim's perfect music too. As with the song lyrics, the writing pulls no punches, whether that means being hilarious or heartbreaking. Or something in between, as with the ending which, without giving anything away, is neither happy nor sad but is real, honest and complicated. Rather like life.
In short, then, Follies is a brilliant, brilliant show. And this glorious production does it full justice and then some. It's one of the best musical productions I've ever seen and easily one of the best things I've ever seen at the NT.
A large part of this is due to the fact that, in the cavernous Olivier, it is one of the few things I've seen that really feels like it was designed for the space rather than just ending up there by chance. It treats the huge stage as a help and fully recognises the potential it offers to be big and bold. Everything in designer Vicki Mortimer's vision is huge and fabulous: the costumes (over half a million Swarovski crystals!), the sets, the decision to place the orchestra on stage behind a see through divider (I loved this), the use of the revolve. Director Dominic Cooke makes some similarly big and bold choices: running without an interval (2 hours 15 minutes ish - perfectly paced and every second enjoyable), the huge ensemble cast, using a full orchestra. His production is masterful. Choreographer Bill Deamer delivers dreamy, beautiful, glamorous and evocative numbers that are a joy to watch.
AND THEN THERE’S THE CAST.
Honestly, this cast is in ultimate bucket list cast territory. First of all, there’s the phenomenal ensemble who sing, dance and generally dazzle their way through a complex and ambitious show. They’re fab, especially in the big set pieces. They back up a central quartet who are mind bendingly great. Let’s start with Imelda Staunton, because she is legendary, who is even better than you expect her to be (which at this point is pretty fucking good). Her Sally is a perfectly naive, quietly strong and deeply touching performance and her Losing My Mind is iconic - I heard people around me whisper ‘wow’ and ‘oh my god’ after the final note. Janie Dee’s Phyllis is equally-but-differently good; fun, sassy, glamorous, complicated, the sort of person I wish I was. Her performance is a knockout and a very strong challenge for the crown of ‘best in show’ (and, one would assume, therefore the Best Actress in a Musical Olivier). Philip Quast is a perfectly suave, sickly and sad Ben and his voice is like melting chocolate. I’ve wanted to see Quast live for so many years (since the Les Mis concert performance which I had on video, because I am very old, and watched so often it wore out) and he’s even better than I hoped. And Peter Forbes is a joy as Buddy, funny, sad and dripping with pathos. It is difficult to overstate how good these four are, both individually and as a group. It’s the stuff that theatrical dreams are made of.
In sum then, Follies is a superb show and this is a superb production. I loved it utterly and you must, must, must catch it if you can. It’s so good, I’m even prepared to forgive the NT for the halloumi salad incident and that is truly saying something.
Follies is in the Olivier at the NT until 3rd January (with good ticket availability for the latter part of the run) and gets the NT Live treatment on 16th November.